U.S. Senator Tina Smith Introduces Legislation to Help Tribal Communities Address Opioid Epidemic, Mental and Behavioral Health

WASHINGTON, D.C. [12/19/19]—Today, U.S. Senator Tina Smith (D-Minn.) introduced a bill—along with U.S. Sens. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), Jon Tester (D-Mont.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), and Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.)—to help Tribal communities in Minnesota and across the country access the resources they need to support people who are struggling with mental health issues or substance use disorders.

Tribal communities have been hit hard by the opioid epidemic. According to a leading health agency, American Indians and Alaska Natives experience some of the highest drug overdose death rates. However, many tribal communities don’t have the resources they need to tackle this public health crisis. 

The Native Behavioral Health Access Improvement Act would create a behavioral health program to help Tribes develop solutions that include culturally-appropriate efforts aimed at prevention, treatment, and recovery. Sen. Smith’s bill would set up the Special Behavioral Health Program for Indians—the SBHPI—modeled after the successful Special Diabetes Program for Indians. You can access a summary of the bill here and text of the bill here.

“Native communities have been hit hard by the opioid epidemic, yet too many aren’t able to access the behavioral health services necessary to tackle these challenges,” said Sen. Smith, a member of the both the Senate Health and Indian Affairs Committees. “Tribes need to be able to access the resources necessary to address the opioid crisis, and other mental health and substance use crises. I’m putting this bill forward to help leaders in Indian Country, and those closest to the work, create programs that leverage their unique strengths and cultural resources.”

“Far too many families in Native communities throughout New Mexico and Indian Country have been hurt by the opioid crisis, suicide, and other behavioral health emergencies,” said Sen. Udall, Vice Chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. “Any successful response to behavioral health and substance abuse issues in Indian Country must be driven by Tribes. That’s why I’m proud to join Senator Smith on this bill to give Tribes the resources to design treatment and prevention solutions that work for their communities.”

“The federal government has an obligation to empower tribal nations with the resources they need to address mental health and substance use in Indian Country,” said Sen. Warren. “I’m glad to join my colleagues on a bill to help tribal nations develop and implement behavioral health programs that best suit the needs of their communities.”

“Substance use disorder has touched every corner of this nation, but few communities have been hit as hard as Native Americans and Native Alaskans. This legislation will empower tribes to provide quality, culturally competent care to treat addiction and behavioral health issues and help individuals on the path to recovery,” said Sen. Cortez Masto. “I’m proud to join Senator Smith in this effort to honor our sacred trust responsibility to provide for the well-being of our tribal communities and ensure every American gets the care they deserve.”

“American Indian and Alaska Native communities experience some of the starkest disparities in mental and behavioral health outcomes, yet lack sufficient direct access to critical funding and technical assistance resources. The National Indian Health Board commends Senator Smith for reintroducing the Native Behavioral Health Access Improvement Act. This legislation would ensure Tribes, Tribal organizations, and urban Indian organizations have access to reoccurring, direct, and meaningful funding streams to create tailored and culturally appropriate care models to address mental and behavioral health challenges,” –National Indian Health Board.

A Special Diabetes Program for Indians (SDPI) was created in response to the diabetes epidemic in Native American communities. SDPI enjoys bipartisan support and has led to an impressive reduction in diabetes-related illness in Native American communities, including a 54 percent decrease in End Stage Renal Disease (ESRD). SDPI shows that these communities see real health improvements when Congress provides them with the resources and local control needed to tackle public health emergencies. To combat the opioid epidemic and the broader behavioral health crisis in Indian Country, Tribes need flexible funding to create behavioral health programs that meet the unique needs of their communities.

The Native Behavioral Health Access Improvement Act would create a Special Behavioral Health Program for Indians (SBHPI) modeled after the Special Diabetes Program for Indians to:

  • Allow Tribes to develop solutions that incorporate traditional and cultural practices into evidence-based prevention, treatment, and recovery programs; and
  • Establish that grant reporting standards be developed in consultation with tribes and provide Tribes with technical assistance needed to develop programs and meet grant requirements.

You can access a summary of the bill here and text of the bill here.